- The Observer, Sunday 11 April 2010
How realistic is the prospect of a nuclear-free world? The question is asked because of several events that took place last week that speak to the possibility of further moves towards disarmament and the hurdles ahead.
The first event, actually a pair of events, has been the unveiling of President Barack Obama's new Nuclear Posture Review and the signing, in Prague, of a new nuclear treaty between the US and Russia, cutting strategic weapons stockpiles. Baby steps both, they progress the world a little further towards Obama's goal of a nuclear-free planet, but in the interim leave it still heavily armed.
The Posture Review is probably the more significant. While disappointing those disarmament campaigners who had hoped for a US declaration of no first use, it sets out a significant new nuclear doctrine. Where once the US reserved the right to use nuclear weapons to respond to an attack against it or its allies by any weapons of mass destruction, now it has been refined to being a deterrent against nuclear attack. This has been a demand of states seeking a commitment from the US explicitly to rule out nuclear weapons use against non-nuclear states as a quid pro quo.
Which brings us to last week's second significant event: not the signing of the new US-Russian treaty, but Friday's announcement by the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that he will not attend Obama's 47-country nuclear proliferation conference in Washington this week. He fears that Israel would come under pressure over its own nuclear arsenal from Egypt and Turkey.
And there is the nuclear disarmament conundrum in a nutshell. For while the handful of powers that once held a monopoly on nuclear arms retention come to realise these weapons are a problem not an answer, irrelevant in the post-Cold War world, that position is not understood by others. Notably Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan and arguably Iran, who see the issue of nuclear weapons retention not just as one of prestige but as serving a regionally deterrent function.
And until states such as India and Israel can be persuaded to give up their nukes, Obama's dream of a nuclear-free world are remote indeed.